Cuba: Nature parks & Caribbean feeling

The WorldTravelerSun, sea and white sand: Cuba is by far the most interesting island of the Greater Antilles. Here you will not only find picturesque beaches, but also nature parks with great fauna and flora.

Valle de Viñales, Pinar del Río Province

This surreal looking landscape in the west of the island should not be missing on any trip to Cuba. Hunchbacked limestone formations („mogotes“), tobacco plantations and king palms give the ten-kilometre long and four-kilometre wide valley a unique character. The cone rocks, which seem to grow from fertile red soil, are around 170 million years old. Rare plants, such as the Cuban palm fern, thrive on its steep walls.

The valley, which is part of the UNESCO „Cultural Landscape of Humanity“, invites you to go on great hikes. In summer you should start early in the morning, as it can get very hot during the day. During the walk you will be surprised by a 120 meter high and 180 meter wide „Mural de la Prehistoria“ – a rock painting of the Mexican artist Leovigildo González Morillo – in the middle of a beautiful landscape.

Tired hikers can rest in farmhouses along the way: Farmer’s wives wake up the spirits of their guests with strong coffee and homemade lemonade. If you speak Spanish, you can learn more about the life of the rural population by chatting. Visitors get their money’s worth „cigar-wise“: some good quality specimens, dried in palm leaf covered tobacco sheds, are sold by the tobacco farmers at fair prices.

Afterwards you can cool off on a motorboat ride through the karst cave „Cueva del Indio“ – or in the smaller and less touristy cave „Cueva de San Miguel“, which is also worth seeing with its stalactites on an overhanging steep wall. The cave „Caverna de Santo Tomás“, the largest cave system in the country, should be particularly interesting for cave fans. It offers a variety of stalactite formations over an extension of 46 kilometres and can be visited with a speleologist.

Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo, Arquipelago „Jardines del Rey“

White palm beaches, turquoise sea: The islands of Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo, which belong to the archipelago „Jardines del Rey“ (King’s Gardens), leave nothing to be desired.

Cayo Coco – at 370 square kilometers the larger of the two islands – is connected to the mainland by a 17 kilometre long dam. It scores above all with around 22 kilometres of white powder beaches, mangrove forests and many endemic plant species. On the island you can swim, dive, walk, hike and cycle. Cayo Coco, by the way, was not named after the coconut, but after a small white heron, the „Coco“ or also „Ibis Blanco“.

More than 200 animal species are at home on the island, for example herons, pelicans and flamingos. In the nature park „Parque Bagá“ crocodiles, snakes, sea turtles, iguanas, wild boars and dolphins cavort. When snorkeling or diving at the more than ten-kilometer-long coral reef, the colorful sea fauna shows its most beautiful side in crystal-clear water.

But the number of hotel beds is increasing in this natural paradise, as Cuba now earns its money mainly from tourism. It remains to be seen how the island state will implement its concept of soft tourism …

On Cayo Guillermo, an islet of only 13 square kilometres, which was recently discovered for tourism, everything turns out to be one size smaller than on Cayo Coco. But nevertheless, the island is dreamily beautiful: with its flawless sand beaches, diving areas at the coral reef and dunes up to 15 metres high, Guillermo does not need to hide from its big sister. Even Hemingway appreciated the island and its even smaller neighbors – and even immortalized them in his book: „Islands in the stream“.

Alexander von Humboldt National Park, Holguín and Guantánamo Provinces

This park in eastern Cuba is considered a true natural treasure: not only is there a greater variety of species here than on most other tropical islands. One of the last extensive rainforests of the Greater Antilles has also survived on its 60,000 hectares. The „Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt“, which was named after the German naturalist of the same name and is a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site, stretches from the mangrove swamp coast to the 1,175-metre-high mountain „El Toldo“.

The national park is home to a huge number of rare animal and plant species: for example manatees, the Cuban slit weevil, the polymita snail with its colourful shell and the one centimetre high Monte Iberia frog, which is one of the smallest agricultural vertebrates, as well as dragon, coral, rain trees and precious woods such as mahogany and teak.

In order to get to know the park from its most beautiful side, it is best to book a guided hiking tour, whereby the approach from Baracoa in a small truck can be a strain on the nerves. Some hikes are more suitable for experienced hikers, such as the „Sendero Balcón de Iberia“, which leads first into the rainforest and then up to Monte de Iberia (740 metres). On the way, tired hikers can refresh themselves in one of the waterfalls with natural pools. Other excursions are more relaxed, for example a combined boat/hiking tour („Bahía de Taco“) or the „Sendero el Recreo“ along a river to the Bahía.

Maria La Gorda, Province of Pinar del Rio

Once upon a time here Maria the Fat had to sell her body to sailors to stay alive: Pirates had left the Venezuelan woman alone on a beautiful palm beach Lucky in misfortune: Maria died a rich, content woman. At least that’s what the legend about this unique natural paradise says.

Maria La Gorda – located in the very west of Cuba, in the Guanahacabibes nature reserve – offers everything for a perfect holiday: miles of deserted white palm beaches, turquoise clear sea and above all top diving areas, which with their impressive coral reefs are among the best in Central America. Whoever dives into the depths of the sea here will not only encounter colourful exotic fish, but also whale sharks more often.

Nature lovers should not only stay on the beach, but also go on a discovery tour in the hinterland. It is not for nothing that the peninsula of Guanahacabibes with its forests and mangrove swamps was declared a UNESCO biosphere reserve in the mid-1980s. The diverse fauna includes wild cattle, deer, various parrot species and the smallest bird in the world, the bumblebee hummingbird. Sea turtles come to the beach at night during the breeding season between May and October to lay their eggs. The only downer: hurricanes have repeatedly caused major damage to guanahacabibes in recent years.

Cayo Largo, Canarreos Archipelago

Endless beaches, crystal clear water, sunshine – if that is not enough, you should come to Cayo Largo. Further highlights await the visitor on 38 square kilometres: the oolith sand on the beaches in the south is whiter and finer than almost anywhere else in the world. And it does not heat up – a huge advantage in hot Cuba.

The two-kilometer long beach „Playa Sirena“ has even made it into the top ten beaches in the Caribbean with its powdered sugar sand and fascinating coral reefs. The magazine „National Geographic“ named the fish rich underwater world off Playa Sirena as one of the best preserved in the world. If you want to experience the fantastic marine fauna and flora up close, all you need to do is book a dive: Not only Playa Sirena, but the whole island is appreciated as a diver’s paradise. With a bit of luck, you can meet sea turtles at the remote beach Playa Tortuga or in the tourist village Isla del Sol, where the young are raised on a turtle farm.

The north of the island is wilder and more impassable. In the dense mangrove forests and salt marshes live many bird species such as pelicans, flamingos, cranes or bumblebee hummingbirds. Off the coast you can dive for wreckage of old sunken ships.

However, there are only hotels on the island; the local employees return to their families on the other islands or on the mainland after 20 days of work. Thus, those who want to learn more about the real Cuba should combine this dream holiday with a round trip through the country.

Sierra Maestra, Provinces of Granma and Santiago de Cuba

For those who want to hike along the paths of the revolution, Cuba’s highest mountain range is just the right place: Deeply hidden in the subtropical mountain landscape was the headquarters of the guerrillas under the command of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in 1957/58. A guide takes the guests on an approximately two-hour hike up to the former general command of the rebels, which was converted into a museum village. From the „Radio Rebelde“ broadcasting station to Fidel’s bed and Che’s toilet cottage, everything has been preserved true to the original.

The „Comandante en Jefe“ had deliberately chosen this area as a hiding place: It was impossible for Batista’s troops to track down the partisans in the wild, inaccessible mountainous landscape. In addition, here – in the poor east of the island – Fidel’s men were strongly supported by the poor farmers of the area.

Today the untouched nature with its dense rain and cloud forests attracts hikers from all over the world: In addition to the tour to the Kommandantur, another guided hike is offered. In two days, experienced mountain lovers can climb up to Pico Turquino, the highest mountain in Cuba at 1,974 metres, and then hike down to the Caribbean coast. The hike is strenuous, but worth the effort: accompanied by hummingbirds, Cubatrogons (or: Tocorororos, the national bird of the country) and other bird species, it leads past huge tree ferns, banana bushes and orchids. On the summit, the dense vegetation somewhat obscures the view. Instead, a bust of the Cuban national hero José Martí reminds the visitors that they are on earth steeped in history.

Valle de los Ingenios, Province of Sancti Spíritus

Visitors to the „Valle de los Ingenios“ experience a special kind of landscape. Amidst the green of the sugar cane fields, dilapidated sugar mills, former colonial houses and slave huts tell stories of wealth and misery of past times. In the 19th century, when more than 50 sugar mills helped the citizens of Trinidad to get rich, the region experienced its heyday. In the meantime, the interesting, fertile plain is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

From the 192 meter high viewpoint „Mirador Loma del Puerto“ you have a great view of the seemingly endless sugar cane fields with their palm groves – up to the Escambray mountains. Strategically located here is also a small bar that offers sugar cane juice, coke and high-proof drinks. If you like, you can hike through the beautiful valley with a guide or take a nostalgic train – if the steam engine is not being repaired, which happens very often …

Another highlight in the „Valle de los Ingenios“ is the centrally located, almost 200 year old tower „Torre Manaca Iznaga“, from which the slaves on the sugar cane plantations were supervised. The brave ones who make it up the ramshackle wooden stairs are rewarded with a view of about 50 kilometres into the valley. And there is a legend surrounding the 43-meter-high tower. It says that the two sons of the plantation owner were in love with the same mulatto girl. And they made a bet for the beauty: whoever built the highest structure and dug the deepest well would get the girl. The contest was probably a draw and the well was never discovered…

In the courtyard of the estate there is an old sugar cane press dating back to 1884, where visitors can buy freshly pressed sugar cane juice during the sugar cane harvest – and take lots of photos of the sweet drink being pressed by the old method.

Guardalavaca, Holguín Province

Where cows were herded in the past („Guardelavaca“ literally means „guard the cow“), tourists now cavort. They sunbathe on one of the most beautiful beaches in Cuba, explore the picturesque bays and enjoy the fantastic underwater world while diving on the coral reef.

The dream beach on the turquoise blue sea, which is about 1.5 kilometres long and about 40 metres wide, easily takes on its better known foreign competitor Varadero. The hinterland of Guardelavaca is even more interesting than that of the tourist stronghold: the lush vegetation in hilly landscape with small, typically rural estates gives an idea of what Cuba has to offer.

Outside of Guardelavaca you will find picturesque bays and other top beaches, for example the Beaches „Playa Esmeralda“ and „Playa Pesquero“, whose paradisiacal beauty is said to have impressed Christopher Columbus. But also the culture does not come too short: in the place Chorro de Maíta there is the biggest cemetery of the natives in the whole Caribbean. After it was in operation from the end of the 15th to the middle of the 16th century, it was converted into an archaeological museum more than 20 years ago. An impression of how the natives lived is given by a reconstructed Taíno village opposite the „Museo Arqueológico Chorro de Maíta“.

Soroa, province of Pinar del Río

On the way from Havana in direction to Pinar del Río, a side trip to Soroa is almost a must. The subtropical fauna and flora of this over 50 year old centre of ecotourism invites you to relax after days of hectic activity in the capital. Soroa – probably named after a Frenchman named Soreaux, who established the first coffee plantation here – is especially famous for a waterfall that plunges 20 meters into the depth and the beautiful orchid garden.

On the way to the „Salto Arco Iris“ („Rainbow Waterfall“) one feels like in a tropical house. Everywhere it sprouts and drips in the humid hot rain forest and you can hear the cries of exotic birds. Now and then a hummingbird flutters by and a lizard scurries into the bushes. Then it goes down a steep staircase to the pools of the waterfall, where clear, cool water invites for a swim. With a bit of luck you can really see a rainbow when the rays of the sun break at the water.

Flower lovers are especially enthusiastic about the orchid garden. What grows at home only with difficulty, grows here in the most beautiful splendour – and much larger than in the domestic flower pot. Over 700 different orchid species from all over the world and many other plants are cultivated on 35,000 square metres. Guides lead the visitors to the most beautiful flowers. The orchid garden blooms particularly profusely between December and March during the main flowering period.

If you still have energy left, you can take a short hike up to the 500-metre high viewpoint: There, on a clear day, visitors are rewarded with a fantastic view of the Cuban north and south coast.

Playa Santa Lucia, province of Camagüey

A paradise for diving enthusiasts: The probably third largest coral reef in the world with more than 500 species of fish and more than 30 diving areas is without equal even in Cuba. In the depths of the Atlantic Ocean there is a rendezvous of impressive marine life. With a bit of luck, divers can meet dolphins, manta rays and even sharks in the colourful coral gardens. In some areas there is a relatively harmless shark species that can be tamed and fed.

But also the wrecks of sunken pirate and Spanish warships as also different underwater caves awake the spirit of discovery. Even the famous French marine biologist Jacques-Yves Cousteau found the coral reef and its inhabitants interesting: off Santa Lucía he went diving with his team to explore the marine fauna and flora.

For sunbathing before or after diving, the 21-kilometer-long icing white powder beach with calm, clear water invites you to relax. The coral reef protects the coast from the currents of the „Canal Viejo de Bahamas“. Another beautiful, somewhat more remote beach is located a few kilometers outside of „Playa Santa Lucia“ in the bay of Nuevitas. At „Playa los Cocos“, the beach is even whiter and the water even more crystal clear – if this is possible at all.

Playa Santa Lucía itself was extended to a tourist centre with its own airport at the beginning of the 1990s.